This is yet another six-pointer for both sides. Sunderland have failed to win many matches against those teams who are around them and that needs to change. It’s matches like this that could prove to be the difference between going down and staying up at the end of the season. Fulham got a huge 2-1 win against West Ham in their last Premier League match and they’ll be hoping for something similar this weekend. Both sides have become established as a top flight side, so relegation will be more damaging for them, than clubs who have only been in the Premier League for one or two seasons. This is mainly due to their players being on Premier League wages, which creates financial problems if they stay out of the division for more than one season. In recent years West Ham and Newcastle got promoted at the first attempt, but they could have easily followed Wolves, Leeds and Charlton down the divisions. The latter three clubs show the reasons why these two clubs will want to avoid relegation as the risks are far larger for them than they are for Crystal Palace and Cardiff.
Fulham have won three of the six league matches since Rene Meulensteen took over from Martin Jol, the other three ended in defeats. Two of the three defeats came against Everton and Manchester City, while the other was an embarrassing 6-0 mauling at the hands of Hull. They did beat Aston Villa, Norwich and West Ham, all of whom will be worried about relegation which makes them even more important. They’ll be keen to add Sunderland to that list. The side have climbed out of the relegation zone for the first time since the Dutchman took charge, as they lie in 16th place. They have a platform to push on into mid-table, but another string of defeats would put them in grave danger.
Their opponents Sunderland have had a good week, beating Carlisle to progress to the fourth round of the FA Cup, before beating Manchester United 2-1 in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi final. Gus Poyet will be keen to see his side carry over their brilliant cup form into the league, as they remain bottom of the Premier League table. Their league form has improved under Poyet, but they are still in huge trouble. They have only lost one of their last five league matches, but they have also only won one. They desperately need to start turning some of their draws against rivals into wins after drawing with Cardiff, West Ham and Norwich in recent weeks. It’s crucial they don’t lose this match as if they do, Fulham would move 8 points clear of them. They are still 4 points off Cardiff in 17th, and they can’t afford to let that gap grow any bigger.
In the corresponding fixture last season, Sunderland ran out winners by a 3-1 scoreline, and they’ll be hoping for a similar result on Saturday. The scorers for the away side that day were Steven Fletcher, Carlos Cueller and Stephane Sessegnon, while Mladen Petric netted for Fulham. When the two sides met at the Stadium of Light on the opening day of the season, Fulham won 1-0; although, Sunderland dominated the match registering 20 shots to Fulham’s 3. Pajtim Kasami scored the winner for Fulham.
Fulham have conceded 42 goals so far this season which is more than any other side in the division. Norwich and opponents Sunderland have conceded the joint second most with 33 which is nine less than Fulham. This shows how poor Fulham have been defensively this season which will encourage Sunderland.
In Sunderland’s last five matches, they have kept three clean sheets, which suggests they have started to tighten up at the back. In the other two matches, they only conceded three goals. If they keep things as tight at the back on Saturday, they’ll have a great chance to take three points given Fulham’s defensive frailties.
Dimitar Berbatov enjoys playing in January, scoring nine goals in his last nine Premier League appearances during the opening month of the year. Many don’t see him as a player to be relied upon in a relegation battle, but he has the quality to win points on his own so could be crucial for Meulensteen. The Fulham manager worked with the Bulgarian at Manchester United so he will know how to get the best out of his frontman.
There might be extra motivation for Berbatov to perform this month as he could potentially get a move away from Craven Cottage, with Arsenal in the market for a forward. The former Manchester United striker has only scored four times this season, but his shooting accuracy of 59% is still impressive. He will be keen to improve his chance conversion of 15%, and it will be a huge surprise if he doesn’t score a lot more in the second half of the season, wherever he may be plying his trade.
Ki Sung-Yueng has been without doubt Sunderland’s most impressive player this season. The on loan Swansea midfielder has been key in the system that Poyet is trying to play, as he is so comfortable on the ball, and rarely giving it away to the opposition. His passing accuracy of 90.01 would be impressive in a side chasing the title, so it’s incredible in a side bottom of the table. It’s easy to see that he has carried the Swansea ethos to the North East, which also fits in with Poyet’s style of play. Even in the final third he picks out a team-mate frequently with a passing accuracy of 86%. If the Black Cats do avoid the drop, the Uruguayan will be keen to add Ki to his squad permanently. He has created 20 chances, one every 63 minutes which is impressive given his deep lying role.
Maarten Stekelenburg will be missing with an ankle injury, so David Stockdale is expected to continue in goal. Brede Hangeland will still be out with his back injury, although he is expected back this month. Darren Bent scored in the FA Cup so he could be pushing for a starting place.
Steven Fletcher is a doubt after picking up a knock in the Capital One Cup semi final. Jozy Altidore could start if the Scotland International does miss the match. Carlos Cuellar won’t be available until next month, while Kieran Westwood is still missing with a shoulder injury. That won’t worry Sunderland fans too much as Vito Mannone has been in inspired form recently. Marcos Alonso is expected to make his Premier League debut after impressing in midweek.
I fully expect Sunderland to win this one. They need it more than Fulham and their cup victories will boost confidence within the squad. If they play like they did against Manchester United, they’ll be too strong for Fulham. Their main problem has been scoring goals, but with Fulham having the worst defence in the league, they will get chances on Saturday. Fulham will be looking at this as a game they should win, but they have been inconsistent under Meulensteen, while Sunderland have been good recently, they have been very unlucky. Although Sunderland have looked to be turning the corner on many occasions before failing to push on, Fulham will be hoping for a repeat of that this weekend.